Home of redemption City Church of Charleston rents space near spot of teen’s killing

Working beneath a mural from the room’s days as a bar, parishioners Jerry Powers (from left), Mike Allen, Tracy Rhett and Larry Chavis renovate the area into a new worship space for the City Church of Charleston.

In the exact parking space off Savannah Highway where 17-year-old Marley Lion parked one summer night because he’d been drinking, now sits a pastor’s car, as if a vehicle could begin to reclaim the spot from evil.

In fact, next month, an entire church congregation hopes to reclaim the space through worship to God and prayer for the Holy Spirit’s gifts and presence.

Lion, a recent Academic Magnet High School graduate, was shot multiple times at 4 a.m. June 16 by a gunman who fired at close range into his Nissan Pathfinder. The killing was captured by a surveillance video mounted on the building that soon will house City Church of Charleston, a young church striving for what a killer stole from the young man: a promising future.

Call it redemption of a space. And hopefully of people as well.

“Evil isn’t going to win in the end. We cannot bring his life back, but we can help other people’s lives get better,” City Church Pastor John Pharis said. “We believe in redemption.”

He points to Scripture.

But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more. — Romans 5:20

It’s not only redemption of the outdoor space. Pharis steps inside City Church’s future home, which is gutted and filled with the whir of workmen’s drills.

The space used to house Jimbo’s Rock Lounge. Above where once there stood a stage remains a 10-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling mural of a busty woman astride an electric guitar with flames shooting out one end of it.

Suffice it to say, she won’t fit the new ambience. Church members will paint over her.

On the second floor of the building, above the church’s future home, are offices and a pole dancing exercise studio. Across the parking lot, sits Joe’s Famous Bar and Grille, which Lion’s alleged killers reportedly had planned to rob.

Pharis hopes to move in around mid-November.

“It’s an unconventional place for a church,” Pharis said. “But we believe we’re here for a reason.”

City Church of Charleston is a lively, charismatic place full of children and young adults. It’s a church where hands clap and wave, music keeps an upbeat tempo, joyful singing is encouraged and the Holy Spirit communes through gifts of prophecy and tongues.

It’s also a church where the pastor’s 16-year-old daughter, Olivia, a longtime pianist and a School of the Arts student, is lead musician. His wife, Angela, a nurse who treats seriously ill patients, sings. His 11-year-old daughter, Lillian, plays guitar and sings as well.

Yet it’s a church that had a hard time finding a new home.

“We ran up against a wall to find something we could afford and that someone would lease to us,” said Pharis, a full-time architect who is licensed as a minister through the United Pentecostal Church.

City Church, formed in 2009 with nine people, drew 25 to its first Easter service. It was one of seven churches the United Pentecostal Church planted in South Carolina that year (although it now is autonomous). By last Easter, it drew 97.

Pharis knew that new church failure rates are high. But he and his wife had stable jobs. And his boss at CEMS Engineering was active in his own church and supportive of Pharis embarking on this new adventure.

The church has been meeting in St. Andrews Middle School’s auditorium. While Pharis credits the Charleston County School District for being helpful, it tasks the church’s volunteers to set up and break down every week for services.

So Pharis started looking for a more permanent home. After a year of frustration, he had discovered two things: Charleston real estate prices remained too high for a young church, and many landowners didn’t want to lease their space to one anyway.

Even the property they’ll soon call home was too pricey at the outset. But Pharis asked if the landlord, David Mantek, would lower the price or work with them to do a graduated lease agreement perhaps over five years.

“And we’re willing to come in and clean it up,” Pharis added.

Mantek agreed. He and his wife, Danielle, are co-owners of the strip mall and had been excited about more family-friendly tenants moving in. Then came Lion’s murder.

“It was the polar opposite of what had been happening here,” Mantek said. “It was such a dramatic event.”

The Manteks didn’t want to lease to another bar. So who?

The next week, Pharis approached him.

“It was like the perfect answer,” Mantek said. “It’s a long-term win-win for the area.”

Wood and drywall sit in tall piles around concrete floors. Workers are tackling the heating and air conditioning. Plumbers started work recently. So did electricians. Church members will paint and carpet.

Some things won’t change. The building will remain a yellowish-cream colored vinyl-sided building with a certain warehouse look. It will still be in a strip mall beside a bar with a giant beer sign.

Maybe residents from the nearby Ardmore neighborhood and others will walk to the church to check it out. Maybe the locale will attract folks who are intimidated by imposing, fancy church buildings.

“And it’s what we could afford,” Pharis added.

The space can seat 150, so the church can grow during its five- year lease. It will include a sanctuary with a stage plus four classrooms for Sunday school and office space.

Behind it sits a house where people run a service for mentally disabled adults. Pharis wonders aloud about outreach possibilities as he passes by men ripping out duct work.

The ceiling is exposed, metal beams hinting at the configuration of rooms to come in the 4,000-square-foot space. Pharis pulls out the blueprints of tomorrow.

“It’s going to be great having our own spot,” Pharis said. “All the blessings we could imagine are here.”

Reach Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.